Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Catching up & Moving on

The last time we'd taken Chrissy to her step-nan's (pictured) was over five years ago. The four-hour journey had been gruelling with a distraught Chrissy repeatedly undoing her seat belt, and screaming, self-injuring and wedging herself into tight spaces.

Last weekend's journey was very different. Apart from the odd burst of repetitive questions, Chrissy settled down in the front seat next to Ian and was content to watch the world go by. When we stopped off at a service station she never once tried to escape to explore the numerous glittering attractions we saw en route to the Ladies. Unheard of!

When we arrived at her nan's Chrissy rushed inside to greet her, grinning from ear to ear. 'I never thought we'd see her like this again,' her nan said, all teary eyed. 'I thought we'd lost her.'

I welled up too as I watched Chrissy taking everything in. She had seen her nan earlier this year when she'd come to stay with us, and she knew who she was. I'm not sure that she recognised the house though. Then her face lit up again as she spotted her sister, Alex, who had come down from Manchester. We hadn't told Chrissy she'd be there or she would have obsessed about it on the way up.

Chrissy is always thrilled to see her siblings. Normally, unless she sees someone regularly she struggles to remember them but she always knows who her younger brother, Jamie, and little sister, Alex, are. The evening went well but Chrissy ate voraciously. We are always trying to distract her and discourage her from overeating but at times, she constantly demands food.

Her happy mood gradually dissipated on Saturday. This often happens after she's been particularly bingey. Something kept coming over her - we never know what - but she suddenly becomes distressed for no discernible reason, and starts screaming, twisting her hands, bending her fingers back and pulling her hair, then she snaps out of it and gives us a beaming smile.

Another mum posted something on a forum that reminded me how difficult things once were for us, and for many other parents of children that have this rare disorder:

''My son's behavioural issues/outbursts/tantrums have escalated so intensely that we don't know what to do anymore. When he gets upset, which is often and for no reason, he is un-calmable. He is incapable of self-soothing, and literally needs me to physically calm him down, rubbing him, deep breathing - sometimes yelling to snap him out of his ritualistic obsessing. It's more than I can take right now and I'm not sure what to do. He woke last night with such emotionally disturbing tantrums and terrors that both my husband and I were in tears......''

Although this desperate mum's description propelled me back to dark times, it also made me realise how far we've come. Chrissy's behaviour will always present challenges to people that look after her but we attribute recent improvements to her revised meds regime. She's still on Prozac but off all antipsychotics. Her behavioural outbursts rarely escalate, her overall mood is much happier, and we can take her out. She continues to be far more alert and engaged in what's going on around her. Her hilarious, stream-of-consciousness observations are back too, giving away all our best-kept secrets! 'Nanny blue jacket, grey hair!' 'You don't like dogs do you mummy?' she declared to my mortification as her nan's adored border collie entered the room. 'Ian farts sometimes,' was another random pearler she uttered loudly and clearly in front of his family. She also threw in a few 'bastard shits' and a couple of 'fucks' for good measure.

The visit was a success, despite Chrissy's changeable mood, and seeing her pleasure at being around loved ones has helped me to re-evaluate what she needs from a supported living placement. I yearn with every fibre of my being to keep her close by where I can protect her and see her more often - but it's not about my needs as a mum - it has to be about what's best for Chrissy. Her psychiatrist and a housing adviser suggested that she'd be better off living in a nearby town. Good public transport links and local amenities would give her more choice of staff and activities, and she wouldn't keep bumping into me while she was out and about. I believe the benefits of living in a community that she's familiar with far outweigh the benefits that are being advocated for her living elsewhere. Chrissy would lead a more fulfilled life if her home was in a familiar place where she has connections to the local community and people that love and care about her. To gain these connections in an unfamiliar place would be a very forced and difficult process for someone that needs 24-hour care and functions at the level of a toddler. Are we in danger of using the 'one size fits all' approach to supported living that is all too often the reason why residential placements break down?

And if it is agreed that Chrissy should live in our village, will government policies dictate otherwise? The current housing and support system is failing many people with a learning disability, who face a lack of housing options due to welfare reforms and budget cuts. Housing benefit caps make rent unaffordable and, although Chrissy can apply for exemption, many private landlords won't accept tenants on benefits, let alone one with a learning disability. Social housing is also inaccessible in some rural areas with specific local connection eligibility criteria. Chrissy wasn't considered for the newly built affordable housing in the village because other applicants that have lived and worked here for years have a stronger local connection. Our only hope is that a suitable, reasonably priced house will come up for sale and a registered landlord will agree to purchase it, and rent it out to Chrissy, possibly in a shared ownership capacity. Struggling to unravel all the supported living red tape makes you wonder if it's delivering on its promise of offering more choice, control and inclusion.

Here, an excellent report by Mencap explores the barriers to successful independent living arrangements, and suggests a national strategy for housing people with a learning disability.

I am a SWAN UK (Syndromes without a Name) blogger

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